Chapter 1: Epistemic Assumptions
Thesis #1: One is solely informed by experience
“We must, as in all other cases, set the apparent facts before us and, after first discussing the difficulties, go on to prove, if possible, the truth of all the common opinions about these affections of the mind, or, failing this, of the grater number and the most authoritative; for if we resolve both the difficulties and leave the common opinions undisturbed, we shall have proved the case sufficiently.”1 As a read through the canon of philosophy2 will evidence, there is a long-standing tradition of beginning with and stating atomic, self-apparent, facts followed by exploring the ramifications of accepting those facts. While some philosophers may begin with assumptions more apparent and verifiable than others, it remains the case that all worldviews are predicated on basic assertions which are made by the one (or group) which crafted said worldview.
This assertion is, itself, a self-apparent truth. There is no real way to prove that all reason is derived from immediate facts, only to disprove it. The principle of non-contradiction is one such principle: a thing cannot both be and not be in the same mode at the same time3. There is no way to conclusively prove this to be the case, but it is the foundation of all our reasoning. I assert that any example that could be presented contrary to this claim is either simply a convoluted example of my assertion or is an exercise in irrationality and absurdity4. I will choose to arbitrarily select one out of all the available examples of a beginning paradigm which attempts to circumvent this reality. A common line of reason in modern American society is the claim that “There exist, among men, a large percentage of bad actors who harm others. We wish to be protected from bad actors. Therefore we must place men in positions of authority over other men in order to protect them from bad actors.”5. Of course, in this case, there will undoubtedly be bad actors introduced into the aforementioned positions of authority, amplifying rather than mitigating the negative effects of bad actors in society.6 This is one of innumerable examples which demonstrate the impossibility of escaping the paradigm I have presented.
As can be assumed, these self-apparent facts are apparent only through the experience of the one to which the fact is apparent. Each of these (and all subsequent) experiential facts are, themselves, informed solely by experience. Even the most extremely outlandish claims to the reception of knowledge, like divine revelation or telepathy, are in their own way experiential. Ignoring whether or not it is possible or likely that one can have a vision or spontaneously altered awareness which is factual or true, what is guaranteed to be the case is that those who honestly make this claim have had an experience of such which has informed their worldview.
Reason, then, as the faculty by which one can analyze and make judgments about one’s environment, is ultimately derived from experience7. The experience of fundamental principles, like the PNC, allows one to generate the praxis8 of reason. By using the tools and flexing the muscles of the mind, one can begin to develop the faculty of reason.
Thesis #2: Reason dictates one’s understanding of the universe
One without reason, like an animal, exists in a perpetual cycle of stimulus and response. No different than a complex computer program, the sum of all an animal’s behaviors is dictated by a genetic, instinctual, rubric by which an animal eats when it is hungry, mates when it is fertile, and flees predators when threatened. Every nuance in their behavior is simply a property of their programming. This can lead to amusing circumstances when an animal’s conditioning is no longer appropriate for their environment, such as dogs refusing to walk through doorways due to certain cues which lead them to believe the door is closed or Andrew Jackson’s parrot swearing so profusely it must be removed from its owner’s funeral9. These amusing behaviors, though, are prime indicators as to the lack of a key characteristic which makes man unique from the animals: reason.
Both man and animals have experiences: certain events as perceived through the senses. However, man has the unique experience of experiencing that he is experiencing. In other words, “We are not only aware of things, but we are often aware of being aware of them. When I see the sun, I am often aware of my seeing the sun; thus ‘my seeing the sun’ is an object with which I have acquaintance.”10 Experience, itself, is clearly not sufficient, then, to be considered reason or a source of reason. Experience, as the animals have it (animal experience as I will refer to it), is little more than a sensational input to an organic calculator which produces a result. That result, even, is no more than an action of the body which, in turn, generates further sensational input. This cycle simply repeats itself thousands of times per minute, millions of minutes in succession, until the animal dies. The experience of man (or just “experience”, as I will call it), however, is different.
Man still experiences via the senses, but there is a slightly more complex process in operation after that initial sense experience. If a man is still in his infancy, is drunk, caught sufficiently off-guard, is mentally disabled, or is one of my critics (or is any combination of the above), it is incredibly likely that they will have a form of animal experience by which reason doesn’t enter the picture until some time after an instinctual and automatic response takes place. Even though that may be the case, there will be an opportunity later to reflect on the experience and interpret it as one wishes (though, at times, that opportunity is ignored). More commonly, an individual has the opportunity to process sense perceptions with a rational mindset, deliberating whether he should say a particular sentence or another while on a date, for example.
In this example of a date, one, we will name him Mike, can draw on experiences from the past to inform the present choice. Upon reflecting how poorly his last date went, Mike may opt to avoid describing in graphic detail what it feels like to shoot oneself in the leg over a veal entree… at least on the first date. This is an example of how one’s understanding is a direct result of one’s internal narrative. After experiencing the horror and disappointment of a first date ending abruptly and with no prospects of a second, Mike would have the rational faculty to reminisce over the experience in order to find a way to succeed in the future. Having reached an understanding that such behavior is not conducive to a successful date, he can choose to avoid that behavior in the future. This applies in all circumstances besides the aforementioned date. If, say, Mike were to decide to read this book, after reading a miserable and arrogant introduction, he may come to an understanding that this book is not worth it and return to watching football never to read philosophy again (that sorry bastard).
Of course, it is possible that one’s interpretation of an experience can be flawed. In the case of Mike, it’s possible that his earlier failed date had less to do with his choice of conversation and more to do with the fact that his would-be girlfriend was a vegan with a touch of Ebola. In the case of his current date, it is distinctly possible that his current would-be girlfriend is a red-blooded anarchist meat-eater who listens to Cannibal Corpse songs when she eats dinner at home. By misinterpreting previous experiences, Mike is going to spoil his chances with a real keeper. For this reason, I find it necessary to delineate between one’s subjective understanding of particular instances, which may or may not be inaccurate, and one’s faculty of understanding.
Thesis #3: One’s understanding of the universe dictates one’s behavior
As we addressed when discussing the differences between animal experience and actual experience, man behaves in a manner distinct from animals. Due to man’s faculty of reason, understanding and justification are elements which interject themselves between the phenomena of stimulus and response. In any instance of stimulus, a man must choose to assent to the stimulus and choose to respond. In the case of Mike, while reading my book, he would be exposed to the stimuli of mind-expansion, intellectual challenge, existential intrigue, and more. Being unaccustomed to such stimuli, our example, while incredulous of the stimuli, assents and then chooses to cease to read and retreat to the comforts of the familiar simulated manhood of football. In the case of a dog, however, whatever new stimuli it is exposed to are immediately either perceived through the filter of instinct or disregarded outright, much like a blind man being the recipient of a silent and rude gesture. As that stimuli is perceived, the dog’s instinct causes it to behave in one manner or another. For instance, being of domesticated genetic stock and trained to assist his blind owner in particular ways, he may maul the one performing the rude gesture, with no rational process involved, merely organic calculation.
This difference, however, does not mean that man is devoid of animal experience or instinct. As mentioned before, under certain circumstances, man can behave in a manner consistent with animal experience. As a matter of fact, it is the case that instinct may play, at a minimum, as much as half of the role in man’s experience and understanding. Man is clearly not the “tabula rasa” of Avicenna and Locke11. As I have asserted, the faculty of reason is inborn. Evidence exists to support my claim in that infants instinctively act on stimuli in order to feed, cry, swim, and flail their limbs; there are also contemporary scientific claims that the brain operates as an organic calculator, the evidence of this also exists in the behavior and brain structure of infants. Additionally, evolutionary psychologists have observed similar phenomena in grown adults concerning phobias, pain reactions, sexual attraction and many other areas of the human experience. As will be addressed later in this book, it is even possible that this rational faculty my argument hinges so heavily on is, in fact, nothing more than a uniquely complex form of animal experience12. Until such a time that I do address such claims, though, we will continue to operate under the belief that rationality exists per se.
Understanding and habituation, then, drastically impact one’s behavior because they are the medium by which one’s experience informs and dictates one’s behavior. Through experience of particular sensations, and the application of reason to those sensations, man can come to understand his environment. Through application of reason to any given circumstance of stimuli, he can then choose an action understood to be most appropriate in any circumstance. Habituation, additionally, impacts man through the instinctual inclination to maintain a certain consistency in one’s actions. In the case of Mike, this would result in choosing to watch sports over reading philosophy.
Thesis #4: The epistemic and phenomenological endeavors of philosophy (and, by extension, certain areas of physics which pertain to the human experience) are crucial to one’s understanding of the universe and one’s resultant behavior.
In choosing to watch sports rather than read philosophy, Mike is attempting to avoid the discomfort of a new experience for which he is ill-equipped. However, in avoiding that experience, Mike is attempting to shirk his need to engage in public discourse and exposure to culture. Whether or not he succeeds in such an endeavor is less important to us now than what such an experience represents. The experiences of public discourse and culture are key experiences which inform one’s understanding and behavior. Our example in the introduction to this book concerning the need for communication and language is a prime example of the fundamentals of public discourse and culture. “This mushroom bad,” clearly establishes certain cultural norms as well as informing one’s attitudes towards certain concepts. In the case of Mike, it could be a friend coaching him with dating advice or beer commercials during the football game altering his expectations of his date. If he had read my book, Mike would be more likely to succeed in his date, having better equipped himself with a tool set for working with the human condition.
These tools have been graciously provided for us through the long-standing traditions of philosophy, most notable in this instance would be epistemology and phenomenology. Through the study of knowledge and how man acquires knowledge13 and experiences and how man feels what he does,14 philosophy can aid significantly in one’s quest for understanding what and how he knows what he does and how to influence those around him. Most of what has been written in this chapter is lifted directly from discussions I have had regarding various works in epistemology and phenomenology. In this regard, I believe this work is a paradigm example of the assertion made, that one of the most crucial kinds of experience for the formation of one’s understanding is one of a social and philosophical nature.
A strong cultural and public formation of one’s understanding is crucial because a well-informed understanding can ultimately provide maximal utility to an individual and society15 whereas a poorly-informed understanding can effectively cripple one’s ability to develop their rational faculties or provide much utility to themselves or others. As was mentioned earlier, one’s subjective, personal understanding can be flawed. Some merely make a small error in their reasoning while others may be mentally disabled by either material means or due to a cripplingly misinformed understanding. The strongest influence to both the possibilities of an accurate understanding or mental disability is that public influence on the individual. As discussed in the intro, when done correctly, philosophy creates the circumstances most conducive to a well-informed worldview.
In this way, we see that one is solely informed by personal experience. That experience allows one do develop inherent faculties such as reason. Reason, in turn, allows one to analyze one’s experiences and engage one’s culture. This analysis generates an understanding and worldview within the individual, which also has a bearing on one’s habits as well. This understanding is the premise on which one makes a decision regarding how to behave in any given circumstance. As forming an accurate worldview is crucial to one’s successes, philosophy (the strongest candidate in this regard) is crucial to forming said worldview.
1Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (Oxford World’s Classics) p.118
2The widely accepted list of “most significant philosophers to-date”.
3We will explore the Principle of Non-Contradiction, or the PNC, more thoroughly in chapter 3: Orders of Knowledge.
4A claim which is logically self defeating, whose conclusions deny the very premises on which it is built.
5This is an example of how Philosophies written in the mid-17th century (Hobbes’ Leviathan) have percolated though the social consciousness for centuries and are no longer questioned.
6Additional examples and further exploration of absurdity can be found in Hobbes’ Leviathan, chapter 5.
7The next chapter will explore this concept more fully.
8The method by which one, through either experience or theoretical knowledge (“knowledge that”), can develop practical, active knowledge (“knowledge how”).
9 Volume 3 of Samuel G. Heiskell’s Andrew Jackson and Early Tennessee History
10“Problems of Philosophy” Bertrand Russell ch.5
11“Tabula rasa” refers to a “scraped tablet” or “blank slate”, evoking a description of the mind in which there is initially no knowledge or activity whatsoever.
12In Chapter 2: “The Embodied Mind”
15In this case, I’m using the term “utility” in a very loose way. The best definition of “utility”, though, would be, “the capacity for a thing to provide or contribute to one’s flourishing.”